Shadow Government

The perils of political apologies

By Peter Feaver

I have some deeply partisan friends who loathe the Bush administration. One in particular sends me intermittent angry emails demanding that I publicly apologize and recant when he reads some new story that gets his partisan blood boiling. Such attacks actually raise an interesting question, one that I have thought about a lot in recent years: the art of political apology.

A real apology -- as my wife forcefully reminds me -- is offered on behalf of something (a mistake) that you yourself were responsible for or that you yourself are willing to take responsibility for. It is not offered on behalf of alleged mistakes that your political opponents did before you were in office. That sort of rhetoric is better described as partisan attack, not personal candor. Real presidential apologies are rare and interesting political phenomena.

In an interesting piece a few months ago occasioned by President Obama apologizing for botching the Tom Daschle appointment, Adam Nagourney opined on the difficulties of leaders offering these apologies. Obama's apology on mishandling the Daschle case was a real one. Mind you, the Obama team managed to sweeten the bitter pill with some self-serving partisan attacks (see Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel's quote in Nagourney's piece), but the president himself was straightforward. It wasn't quite what I call "the full Jimmy Swaggart" -- but it was authentic.

Many people have observed that President Bush should have developed a more comfortable language of apology and sooner. I agree. But on key occasions when Bush did follow the "admit mistakes" playbook, he ran into a problem that the Nargourney article missed: apologizing lances the boil (that is good) but, to mix a metaphor, it locks in amber a distorted view of what happened (that is bad), and over time leaves the president is unable to defend himself against unfair attacks on that subject.

Exhibit A is Katrina. I think historians will see Katrina as the decisive pivot in Bush's presidency, not Iraq; that is what sunk presidential approval and, I would argue, had the greatest paralyzing impact on the second term. Even Bush has cited it as his biggest mistake. By apologizing for Katrina, however, Bush locked in the worst caricatures of "incompetence." In fact, mistakes were made, but the Katrina-related mistakes by the White House were not gross failures that played a decisive role in exacerbating the human suffering of the tragedy. The real incompetence that mattered was at the local and state level. Bush and his White House staff should have done better and should have done it sooner. Things that were not foreseen -- like the need to have local TV feeds into the White House Situation Room, should have been foreseen and were fixed. FEMA Administrator Brown was clearly not up to the job. President Bush should have found a better way to buck up morale than to say "you are doing a heckuva job."

But the White House was not rightly to blame for what most people think of when they think of Katrina problems -- and what most people think of when they think of Katrina problems did not even happen. Yet because Bush apologized, he essentially took on board every critique and was defenseless when partisans used Katrina in tendentious ways. I think this may have been part of the reason why we never found an effective way to apologize for missteps on Iraq. The list of partisan attacks on the president on Iraq was far longer than the list of actual mistakes. How to acknowledge the mistakes that one has actually made without appearing to endorse every tendentious attack leveled by partisan opponents?

The Daschle appointment apology put Obama in a similar vulnerable position. The White House is a Keystone Cops crowd of screw-ups. What, you dispute it? Even Obama admitted it. The White House is tone deaf about taxes, which they are happy to raise because they expect others, not them, to pay it. What, you dispute it? Even Obama apologized for not getting it. And so on.

Of course, nominating tax evaders and then throwing them under the bus is less significant than being slow off the dime in response to the confusion of the country's worst natural disaster in a century. But it sets a precedent that the Obama White House might find awkward. Perhaps that is why they have assiduously avoided apologizing for mistakes they have made and have instead kept the focus squarely on "apologies" for "mistakes" their predecessors have made.